Women between the ages of 25 and 60 are being reminded of the importance of availing of free smear tests in order to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer.
This week is European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week and in Ireland, the event is being highlighted by the Pearl of Wisdom campaign, which is being supported by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).
The Pearl of Wisdom is the international emblem of cervical cancer prevention.
Cervical cancer refers to cancer of the cervix, which is the neck of the womb. The disease normally develops over time, starting off with early abnormal ‘pre-cancerous' changes to the cells in the cervix. These changes occur gradually, often over a period of 10-15 years.
In some cases, mild changes may return to normal by themselves, however in other cases, the changes may persist, eventually becoming cancerous.
However these early ‘pre-cancerous' changes can be detected by a smear test. If detected, the cells can be destroyed before they turn into cancerous cells. It is estimated that smear tests can detect up to 90% of potential cervical cancers.
Every year in Ireland, around 300 women are newly diagnosed with the disease and some 90 women die as a result.
The Pearl of Wisdom campaign is highlighting the fact that ‘women can stop cervical cancer before it starts by availing of a free smear test in 2014'. Smear tests are available to women aged between 25 and 60 free of charge via CervicalCheck, the National Cervical Screening Programme.
"Cervical cancer takes a long time to develop and often has no symptoms, but the good news is that it can be prevented. A smear test does this by ensuring that any abnormalities in the cervix are detected and treated early. Having a smear test has never been easier. It only takes a few minutes, it's free, and it really could save your life," explained IFPA medical director, Dr Caitriona Henchion.
She noted that an IFPA review of cervical cancer screening that was carried out at its Dublin centre between 2008 and 2012 revealed that women over the age of 45 are less likely to go for smear tests.
While acknowledging that it is less likely to find abnormal cells in women over the age of 45, ‘a significant number were still detected'.
"This shows that as women age, they are still at risk of developing cervical cancer, and should continue to go for regular smear tests until the age of 60," Dr Henchion insisted.
As part of this awareness campaign, the IFPA has distributed some 20,000 pins and information leaflets to women nationwide, via pharmacies, occupational health nurses and other health promotion networks, including community organisations.
Commenting on the campaign, Dr Philip Davies, director general of the European Cervical Cancer Association, pointed out that around 30,000 women throughout Europe die from this disease every year ‘because they do not have access to high-quality cervical screening programmes'.
"Through CervicalCheck, Ireland has one of the best cervical screening programmes in the world and it is completely free. This week, I strongly encourage all women in Ireland aged 25 to 60 to prevent cervical cancer by booking their free smear test today," he added.
Since CervicalCheck was launched in September 2008, it has provided over 1.65 million free smear tests to women here. Some 875,000 women have had at least one smear test via the programme.
For more information on how to avail of a free smear test, click here